Category Archives: books

Architecture and islamophobia

The UK far right’s indignation at the imagined encroachment of Islam into British life has given us some great comedy moments, including this week’s snafu by UKIP berating the BBC’s liberal bias for staging a vox pop in front of a mosque in central London, better known as the gorgeous Westminster Cathedral in Victoria. And who can forget this priceless EDL rant against the Muslamics for building a huge mosque near the sea front in Brighton?

Westminster Cathedral


The fact is, Islamic civilisation has given us some stunning architecture, a source of inspiration to Western architects and artists for centuries. The Brighton Pavilion is one such building, but there are countless others. The inspiration flows in the other direction too; I doubt there’s a major city anywhere in the Islamic world which isn’t chock full of western-influenced buildings, from gothic to neo-classical to post-modern. I wonder if pilgrims to Mecca post angry Facebook rants about the Puginesque Clock Tower overshadowing the Ka’aba?

Clock Tower Mecca

Big Bennish

Our cultures have mixed and mingled throughout their illustrious histories, much to our mutual benefit. There are mosques that have become churches; and churches that have become mosques; and they are all the more interesting for it.

Hagia Sofia Istanbul

Church that became a Mosque

Cordoba Cathedral

Mosque that became a Church

So what exactly is it that the far right find so threatening? Is it the foreign architectural style which seems so out of place in frigid England? Then let’s say goodbye to Winchester Cathedral and York Minster, which use exotic imports from Islamic architecture such as the pointed arch and the rose window. What happens when British Moslems build their places of worship in the local architectural vernacular? Is that OK with the kippers and Britain First?

Tahir Mosque, Catford

Is this OK, UKIP?

When challenged on the Daily Politics, Nigel Farage made the excuse that his party’s activists “are not wholly trained”. Wholly trained in what? Architecture? Let’s call this spade a spade: this UKIP activist’s reaction betrayed her islamophobia, and the only training she lacks is how to hide it from public view. In this, she is not an exception, she is absolutely typical of every kipper I’ve ever encountered. UKIP is an islamophobic party. Who can doubt it?

(Postscript – if you’re interested in learning more about Islamic architecture, you might enjoy The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron and In Xanadu by William Dalrymple. Non-Amazon link.)

The EU: a union of state bureaucracies?

Jean Monnet said that we are not building a coalition of states; we are creating a union of peoples (“nous ne coalisons pas des États, nous unissons des hommes”).  So no, in response to @brunobrussels, we are certainly not a union of state bureaucracies; or, at least, that’s not what we aspire to.

But what’s the reality? Has the EU successfully delivered Monnet’s vision?  Or has it fallen short?

I think I answer that question partially in my previous post (Institutional Imbalance), but I still feel that Bruno deserves more of a reply.  I detect in his reaction – and I hope he’ll correct me if I’m wrong – the premise that power belongs more naturally with nation states and national parliaments, and any move to transfer sovereignty to a higher tier than the nation state effectively strips sovereignty away from its democratic home.

In his excellent book ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’ Jared Diamond describes how people have historically organised themselves in ever-more-complex configurations: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states; and then those states evolve into ever larger structures, with ever larger numbers of citizens.

Diamond argues that humans have a strong interest in forming part of ever-larger state incorporations; but also that they tend to have a strong vested interest in the status quo.  As a result, they tend to resist upward incorporation even at the expense of their own longer term interests.  External pressure is usually needed to force the upshift to broader political structures (again, see my previous post); but, when this is realised, it tends to benefit all members of that new, larger, political structure.

To my mind, Diamond’s thesis offers a clear understanding of the tendency towards euroscepticism but also why this tendency is an historical dead end.

The nation state is no more ‘natural’ a political unit than any other, including the EU.  Arguments against the EU which are premised on the notion that the nation state has more legitimacy qua nation state than any other political structure are, I strongly believe, fundamentally flawed, and guilty of historical subjectivity.

Of course, there are those who argue that the EU’s structures are less democratically accountable than its Member States’, and that this means that sovereignty should revert to those Member State structures.  But this isn’t an argument against the EU.  It’s an argument – right or wrong – for reform of the EU’s structures so that they become more democratically accountable.

(Aside: I managed to squeeze the above into five tweets, but thought it preferable to go long form rather than spam people’s twitter feeds. This shows how useful Twitter is as a tool for forcing you to get your point across in as few words as possible.)

Update added at 15.46 CET 20/2/13:

It’s been suggested that I don’t really address the question of whether Monnet’s “Union of People” has been achieved.  What many eurosceptics fear is that the EU represents Big Government washing out the power of individuals.  It has also been put to me that the EU is an elite project which seeks to remove politics above society.  Let’s take these charges one by one.

Does the EU seek to remove politics from society?  This one is easy: of course it doesn’t.  If it did, why would so much money and effort be put into attempts to legitimise the EU with its citizens?  You might argue that those efforts are not very effective, but you cannot deny that those efforts are made.

Is the EU an elite project?  I see this as a meaningless question.  Restructuring a society’s political system has always been the task of an elite; Robespierre, Trotsky and the Gracchi belonged to an elite.  Popular support, or democratic legitimacy, is of course a different matter, but let’s save that one for another day.

Is the EU “Big Government”?  As Diamond argues, government has a tendency to become bigger over time, if by bigger we mean extending into more areas and bringing more people under its wing.  But what about ‘big government’ in the passive-aggressive, dismissive sense used by certain libertarians who fear that citizens are excluded from the decision-making process, or that government takes decisions about citizens which are none of its business?  In this respect, the EU is no worse, and probably a lot better, than most of its Member States.  EU competence is very clearly defined in a Treaty which has been negotiated by the Member States and ratified by the Member States.  There is double democratic legitimacy: firstly, through its Member States which are all representative democracies and which both appoint the executive and form one chamber of the legislature; and secondly, through the directly elected European Parliament, forming the second branch of the legislature.  I’m not going to address the question of whether this democratic legitimacy is sufficient, except to say that I personally think there are flaws; but to paraphrase Churchill, no-one pretends that EU democracy is perfect or all-wise.  It’s the best we have, until we put our heads together to make it better.

Does the EU wash out the power of individuals?  As soon as humans started organising themselves into political structures larger than the family, individuals gave away some control over their own lives in return for a higher degree of security.  Modern political structures attempt to find a compromise between the benefits which accrue from collective decision-making and the desire we all have to make independent decisions about our lives.  In this respect, too, the EU is no worse and probably a lot better than most nation states.

One final point: far from excluding the individual, the EU is there to benefit the individual citizen.  This is hard-baked into the Treaty.  The EU provides its individual citizens with many rights and freedoms which are guaranteed by the Treaty.  Those rights and freedoms should not be taken for granted.  Outside the EU, they might come under threat.